She arrived at the Parish Gallery in Georgetown with bone-straight long hair that flowed past her shoulders and in printed Valentino jeans that remind you of her colorful abstract paintings that hang on the walls.
“My paintings represent multi-facets of emotion which all humans can relate to: loss, love, sadness, happiness, faith, death, family and even relationships,” artist Maria-Lana Queen said from her studio on a recent afternoon. “That’s what I represent in my paintings, and I think people are drawn to that.”
The paintings represent raw emotion because they are born of pain. Queen, 43, started painting after the 2003 death of one of her brothers, Gerard Queen.
“I felt like I was caged and powerless after the death of my brother,” she said. “Some people keep a written diary, I keep a painted diary. It’s an instant release for me.”
Now Queen is debuting the third installment of her abstract paintings in a show called the “Break-through - Painted Diary III ” at the Parish Gallery in Georgetown through Dec. 4.
Queen is a native Washingtonian and one of 10 children. A former model who walked fashion runways in The District, Philadelphia and New York 20 years ago, she now works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, advocating for young people living in low-income households.
But it took the intervention from friends and family to help her inner artist come out. Her friend and mentor Marva Street noticed Queen’s anxiety, insomnia and loss of appetite from constantly worrying about Gerard, who was hospitalized at the time. “You look like you need to get something out,” said Street. She gave Queen tubes of paint, paint brushes and canvas on Christmas Day.
“I was moved to try to do something that would bring some relief and solace and I thought of painting as therapy for her, like I was using writing as therapy,” Street added.
Queen said that at one point, thought she would never use any of Street’s gifts. “I have B.A. degree in business management and I knew nothing about painting,” she said. “As a fashion model I couldn’t fathom using a paintbrush having my hands and or clothes covered in paint. It was more or less a curious gift that I never imagined using.”
Queen said that Street’s intervention helped her live through the pain. “It is divine intervention that I started this painting seven days after my brother’s death,” she said. “It was all I could do.”
Indeed, Queen works through a range of experiences in her paintings. One of her favorites is a mixed-medium work where she created two ponytail braids using popsicle sticks in the artwork titled “Painted Diary: Don’t Tease.” The painting focuses on growing up with her twin sister and being teased at school. “We are light skinned and had ponytails and felt unfortunately different,” she said. “In my paintings, what you will see are some common metaphors that reflect my life.”
The “Break-through - Painted Diary III” collection is the third installment in Queen’s ongoing abstract diary. She uses a bright range of colors to express the comfort she found through her artistic expression. In the painting, “Heavenly Reunion” she expresses her belief that death does not break the connection with those that we love -- we will see them again. Through out her work she uses stick figures to represent the spirit that is in each of us -- free and undefined by the restrictions of the world.
“ Angels with Names ” features figures without halos to represent the living. Queen also uses several devices as metaphors: ladders to express a way out of situations, small stitch-like marks she calls “tracks” intended to remind us that there are consequences to the choices we make. There are cages to express the feeling of powerlessness, crosses to acknowledge the burdens we bear, numbers to represent their importance as markers in our memory and finally images shaped like DNA strands to represent her quest to better understand her genetic heritage.
“The work of any artist is an extension of themselves and it’s highly personal,” said Adrienne L. Childs, a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. “When I looked at her work for the first time I was blown away by the color from this abstract artist. It’s alluring and inviting and decorative and also has a lot of meaning.”
Queen’s work has started to impress a wide group of local African Americans. On a warm day before Thanksgiving, Debra Lee, CEO of BET Networks, visited Parish Gallery to look at some art work and immediately observed Queen’s paintings hanging throughout the room. “I love abstract and I love color,”Lee said.” She began chatting with Queen about her admiration for the emerging artist.